Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. A baseball from the 1937 All-Star game. Julia Child’s kitchen — the whole kitchen, from the tools she cooked with to her actual kitchen sink. If it’s cool and noteworthy, it’s at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. And you know we think Julia’s kitchen is the coolest.
At Sur La Table, we’re incredibly excited to be a part of the museum’s latest endeavor, Food Fridays. Every Friday through December, the museum is turning up the heat on food history in their new demo kitchen. Each Friday event features a guest chef and a Smithsonian host preparing a recipe and discussing the history and traditions behind its ingredients, culinary techniques and enjoyment. Sur La Table is helping to support this fun program — a few of the Resident Chefs from our cooking classes will even be leading the demonstrations!
To get a behind-the-scenes look at Food Fridays, we checked in with three folks from the National Museum of American History who are helping to pull it all off — Paula Johnson, Curator; Jessica Carbone, Food Fridays Smithsonian Host; and Susan Evans, American Food History Project Director.
SLT: How did Food Fridays come to be? What was the inspiration for these events?
Johnson: The inspiration for Food Fridays comes directly from the museum’s new demonstration kitchen. After many years of planning, we finally have a great facility for sharing American culinary history with the public. The kitchen allows us to bring our food history programs to life in a sensory and experiential way. We can also invite chefs, farmers, growers, educators, and other food folks to share their knowledge of America’s food history, traditions, and innovations with the public.
SLT: What can museum visitors expect from a Food Friday presentation?
Carbone: We really want this to be a live, dynamic exchange between the visitors, the guest chef, and the Smithsonian host about what makes a specific dish a part of American history—visitors should expect to see deliberate cooking techniques that reflect the expertise of the chef, hear both the chef’s personal story and the broader story of American culinary history, and discover new nuances in familiar (or unfamiliar) foods. We want the act of cooking to be the first step in learning about the deeper story of who has grown, sold, and prepared the food we enjoy today, and we want visitors to come away thinking, “Wow, I had no idea there was so much history behind this one dish.”
SLT: Can you talk a little bit about the American Food History Project? What is it, and why now?
Evans: Food is a shared human experience that connects with our personal, family, and national memories. By learning more about American food history, individuals can understand the role they play, individually and collectively, in shaping the future of food.
With this in mind, through our programs, research, and collections, the American Food History Project at the National Museum of American History invites communities near and far to come to the table. Food at the museum entails a diverse menu of programs and demonstrations that bring visitors together for relevant discussions that start with history and expand to the present and future of American Food. Programming like Food Fridays connects audiences with their history and fuels informed discussion that will shape how and what America eats.
SLT: How did Sur La Table come to be a participant in this program?
Evans: The museum has worked with Sur La Table in the past. For instance, we partnered with them on the dinner celebration for Julia Child’s 100th birthday at RIS. At that time we discussed our plans for the demonstration kitchen and over the course of the last years we have kept them apprised of our efforts. When we conceived of our Food Friday’s program we thought of potential partners and Sur La Table was on top of the list. Sur La Table has been a tremendous help to us stocking the kitchen with the right utensils and supplies. We are grateful for their support.
SLT: What are some of the themes that will covered by Food Fridays over the course of the year? Why were those, in particular, selected?
Carbone: We wanted to pick themes that would both resonate with the specific visitors who come to the National Museum of American History, and for all the visitors to the Smithsonian family of museums. We kicked off with Summertime Cooking in America, to explore the rich regional traditions of hot-weather cooking, and in August we’ll be looking at Food Movements in the 20th Century, to give a broader view of the major culinary shifts that have altered the way we eat today.
SLT: Are there any notable pieces from the Smithsonian collection that will be highlighted as a result of this program?
Johnson: Yes, we’ll be looking to the collections for objects that will help illuminate the history behind the food being prepared. Last week, for example, we brought out the “Cookeroo,” a portable, fold-up grill that was marketed in 1961 to “young fellows” who wanted to experience cooking out of doors. This week we’ll show a clam rake used for harvesting clams at low tide in New England. Stay tuned for more objects out of storage as the programs continue throughout the fall.
SLT: Were there any old traditions, trends or recipes you unearthed when preparing this program that caused a giggle or inspired some nostalgia?
Carbone: Food is so intimate and personal, and so bound up in our family memories and traditions, that we’ve all found something of ourselves in these programs. Looking at our upcoming Julia Child program with Sur La Table on August 21st, the members of our team that collected her kitchen for the museum can’t help but launch into Julia stories. But there’s also something wonderful about dipping into archival recipes for research—in preparing for our seafood program with Sur La Table on July 17th, we have to laugh at some of the assertions made by proud regional home cooks. In her 1964 cookbook, “My Favorite Maryland Recipes,” Helen Tawes (the wife of then-Governor J. Millard Tawes), says that she likes to write about crab not solely because it is so “typically Maryland, but because it is often so abused in the kitchen… It is too frequently ruined by the unappreciative—crab cannot be enhanced, only complemented.” These memorable explanations make researching regional American cuisine ten times more fun and enlightening.
SLT: What are you most looking forward to once this program gets going?
Johnson: We’re looking forward to experiencing the first tantalizing whiffs of food cooking and to seeing how our visitors interact with our guest chefs. We also look forward to engaging with the public about their food memories!
Carbone: One of the very best things you can do for your health and peace of mind is to cook your own food—and when you’re cooking something interesting, something you’ve learned more about, you’re immediately more compelled to go in the kitchen and get to work. If our wonderful guest chefs can inspire more people to get back in the kitchen, and to think more deeply about what food and cooking mean to American history, then we’ve done a great job!
SLT: Is there anything else you want our readers to know about Food Fridays and the American Food History Project?
Carbone: Food Fridays is just one of the many branches of the American Food History Project—in October we’re hosting our first-ever Smithsonian Food History Weekend, a three-day celebration of “Innovation on Your Plate” where we’ll eat, discuss, and explore the ways our food system has been innovated, and what those innovations might mean for the future of food. It will be a must-attend event for anyone interesting in the deeper stories of how we grow, buy, and consume food!
Thanks, everyone! We can’t wait to see how it all turns out. If you’ll be in D.C. this year and want to know when our Resident Chefs will be leading a demonstration, check out our calendar. To learn more about Food Fridays at the National Museum of American History, click here.